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What Happened to Architecture?

Introduction Architecture is much more than physical structures, though the exact as to what architecture is, is rather more difficult to define. Through the following writing I aim to search in to the question of architecture To try and discover what the essence of architecture is. To assist me on this journey I shall draw from the work of the others who have written on the subject such as Le Corbusier and Paul Shepheard; and their focuses such as the fire, the kilt and human gathering.

Society The Oxford English Dictionary states that society is: ‘the sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently’1. The earliest form of society found of us (homo sapiens) is primal hunting, a group with a common causethe necessity to eat! The beginning: 35,000 years ago the southern regions of France and Spain were inhabited by one of our earliest direct descendants- Cro-Magnon man. Cro-Magnon man lived in small societies consisting of a few families, the exact size depending on the numbers of men needed to hunt in the area. Neighbours would join together to help hunt for larger animals such as reindeer, which it would not be possible to hunt as an individual.2 The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (date) believed strongly in the sentiment of the Palaeolithic man, referring to him as the ‘noble savage’3. Rousseau’s basic beliefs were that the primitive man was the natural state of the human condition, saying that civilization of society causes man to ‘curb and frustrate his natural instinct, repress his true feelings.’4 He hypothesised that man is born pure and corrupted by civilized society, once man has entered civilization it is not possible to return to the innocence and naivety of the primitive man.5 It can be surmised therefore that in the eyes of Rousseau there is a greater sense of architecture within


Oxford English Dictionary, p1006 The 1995 Grolier Multimedia encyclopaedia 3 Bryan Magee, 'the story of Philosophy’ pp126-129 4 ibid 5 ibid 2



What Happened to Architecture? the life of a primal hunter, than there is within the architecture of a modern civilization. Le Corbusier on the other hand believed that man had essentially not changed from Palaeolithic man: ‘There is no such thing as primitive man; there are primitive resources. The idea is constant, in full sway from the beginning.’6 This antithesis’s the idea of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ the architecture of then and now are the same, it’s just the style which has changed.7 I can relate to this deepened human instinct to gather and form ‘a society’ from an experience I had while visiting Pompeii. When there like most you walk around the ancient ruins meeting small numbers of other tourists as you all negotiate your various paths through the city. However as I walked down one street in particular – Via del Versuvio as I recall- on my particular vector towards the Teatro Grande I noticed at the bottom of the hill a large gathering of people, initially –as most probably would- I assumed it to be one of the many large guided tours of the ruins. Nonetheless as I drew closer to the crowd I realized that it was not a tour but a collection of people who had all decided to stop and rest, all at the same point within this vast city, but why? As I entered the crowed the reason why was presented to me in the form of a humble tap of running water sat within the centre of the crossroads. This singular object was the draw that had brought together a group of people of different ages and nationalities together with its common cause – the need to drink, the tap caused them to have a sense of place. Had in this 2000-year-old classical city I found the most prominent piece of architecture- the tap? “The centre of the village has a well and through its reflection wishes could be realised.”8 The well becomes a place of gathering, a place for conversation and the exchanging of news the fetching of water being the excuse which allows this conversation to happen.9


Le Corb, Towards a new architecture p70 Le Corbusier, op. cit. p71 8 Per Olaf Fjeld, Sverre Fehn on the thought of construction p50 9 Per Olaf Fild, op. cit. p50 7



What Happened to Architecture?

The Fire To associate the fire with being architecture is an obvious one, but I feel an important one none-the-less. For thousands of years the fire has played a vital role in mans existence; providing heat, light, cooking and safety from attack. To Cro-Magnon man mentioned above the fire was the centre of the tribe; the society would form around the fire.10 Since this era fire and water have been key to our existence, as put by Per Olaf Fjeld when referring to Sverre Fehn: “Fire and water have always been the focus for the places where people gather. These elements are opposed in character and are by there nature social.”11 The fire gives points of light after darkness and its very presence creates the ‘room’ of which we inhabit within nature.12 Even now the fire has an overwhelming power over people- though I fear that this is more through nostalgia than through an appreciation for the spiritual essence of the fire. Frank Lloyd Wright believed strongly in the importance of the fire, especially within the home. He would design his buildings to focus on the fire; ‘the fire is the heart of the home’;13 though in many modern homes the fire is no longer the focus, the focus has been moved – usually to the Television, and I don’t feel that the television is architecture in the same way the fire is. When planning the Unite D’habitation, in Marseille, Le Corbusier tried to address that even then, the focus of the home was changing. He believed that the hearth was the centre of the home, both of the home as physicality and the home in the sense of a family unit.14 “Fire, hearth, living-room, kitchen – they all cluster around the same idea. The family group is clustered round it too.”15


Cro-Magnon ref Per Olaf Fjld, op. cit. p24 12 ibid. 13 Find quote 14 Le Corb, Marseille Block p19 15 ibid 11

The Fire


What Happened to Architecture? African aboriginals still hold the fire as being very important, even though temperatures in the bush can easily exceed 40 C, when out working or tracking they will still light a fire where they stop- in spite of temperature- this is as it gives them a sense of place and belonging, as well as the securities that having a fire brings – this is true architecture, and to be able to speak to the bushmen to find out more about the importance of the fire would be a great thing.16 To help understand the complexity of establishing what architecture is we can look to the humble chair. The chair in its self is a clear and identifiable object – you see a chair and know it’s a chair. However the chair is not prescriptive, there is not a set of criteria which if met will instantly identify a chair; - it has four legs, so does an elephant and a chair can have 3 legs and still be a chair; it has a back, so does a bench; you sit on it, the list of comparisons for this one is endless! There is only one notion as to what makes a chair a chair, and that is that a chair has chairness. There is an underlying instinct that no matter how abstracted the chair is it will be identifiable as a chair, there are no criteria- just an instinct.17 This is very much the same with architecture, there isn’t a set of prescriptive criteria which if met make an architecture, just an under lying sense of ‘what I am experiencing now is architecture’.

What is architecture? I like the image Paul Shepheard Evokes in his essay ‘Three exhibitions in the search of architecture’ he talks of Coleridge and Schiller standing in a Teutonic forest trying to establish where the gothic came from.18 Here it is not the quest for the gothic I’m interested in but his description of the forest- he describes it as a cathedral. This image I think is apt in two ways. The physical attributes of the forest can be likened to a cathedral; the long tall trunks ordered along a path form the columns siding the nave. The branches of the canopy fan out across the path to form the vaulted ceiling to the nave.


Ray Mears Bush craft John Fredricks Learning and Changing 18 Paul Shepheard, ‘What is Architecture?’ p12 17

The Fire


What Happened to Architecture?

The way man interacts with the forest also forms an architecture, how he uses it to his advantage- to inhabit it. “Within himself everyman is an architect. His first step towards architecture is his walk through nature. He cuts his path, like a writing on the surface of the earth. The crushing of grass and brushwood that gives way for his strength is an interference with nature, a simple definition of man’s culture.”19 The way a space in the forest is cleared for inhabitation creates a ‘room’, a clearly identifiable extent which may later be reinforced by the placement of objects such as the fire. The clearing created and the beaten paths there to leave a sign for others to follow, once many use the same paths and clearings they share an interest and form either actively on inertly a society.20 The other way the forest can be likened to the cathedral is in a more spiritual sense, reminding us of our primitive origins, the ghost of our former home; the forest holds within us a genius loci. I think forests are architecture.

“…just let me mention the kilt. The original garment is a twelve-foot by 6 foot plaid that can be warn around the waist and thrown over the shoulder, secured by belt and broach, during the day. At night the clansman lays the rectangle out on the ground, lies down on it naked, and wraps it round himself to sleep in.”21

In this passage Paul Shepheard uses the kilt to clearly identify an architecture, moved on from the fire and social gathering the kilt holds with in it a similar architecture; but what is the modern kilt? What architecture do we have now which is as practical and vital to life as the clansman’s kilt?


Per Olf Fjeld, op. cit. p24 ibid 21 Paul Shepheard Op. Cit. p106 20

What is Architecture?


What Happened to Architecture? In attempting to establish this it can be hypothesised that the mobile phone is the modern kilt, though heavily abstracted. The mobile phone can- on a psychological level at least- provide many of the functions and securities to modern man that the kilt offered the clansman. The mobile clearly has many practicalities, communication, business and organisation- which can be likened to the practicalities of the kilt (clothing, warmth, etc.) however the mobile phone also has similarities to the kilt in the way it is interacted with by the human user. The mobile phone offers people a sense of safety and security, simply by being there in a similar way to wrapping oneself in a kilt would. Many people use their mobiles as “symbolic bodyguards”22 producing them in public places such as cafés and stations so as to come across to others as occupied and thus appear less vulnerable. The mobile phone goes back furthermore to the even more basic primate instincts of ‘grooming talk’. With the changes in the society of the post industrialised age people no longer have ‘village green’ or ‘round the well’ conversations- conversations with out purpose but usually result from people being in the same place at the same time performing other tasks. The mobile phone can replicate these lost brief encounters, the conversations with out a role.23 Man has also adapted the mobile to overcome his shortcomings, such as timidity for example. Text messages allow people to communicate with others or in a forum which they otherwise would not be confident or comfortable. An obvious situation where this is commonly the case is in flirting or courtship- an act which in the long run is vital to our existence- however in the world of the mobile phone people can comfortably communicate with someone they would not in a face-to-face environment. This phenomenon is resulting in the beginnings of many relationships being based on text.24 This highlights the way in which man manipulates the mobile phone can be likened to the kilt, both objects by themselves are somewhat mundane but it’s the creativity of man which turns them into a useful and practical thing.


Kate Fox, ‘Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behaviour’ pp86-87 ibid 24 ibid 23

What is Architecture?


What Happened to Architecture? It would be wrong of me to write about what architecture is without in some way at least trying to relate it in some way to our built environment. What is it that makes the built environment architecture as opposed to a collection of built structures? In order to assess this we have to assume a certain quality, a quality that distinguishes between architecture in its lay sense- buildings are architecture- and architecture in its true sense. What is this quality that causes the distinction? I think we need to look back to our chair and its sense of chairness- architecture is the same true architecture exudes a sense of architecture, a deep-set feeling and emotion. This idea is similar to the way architectural quality is described by Peter Zumthor in his book Atmosphere; his description of the ‘sense’ of architecture.

“what do we mean when we speak of architectural quality? It is a question I have little difficulty answering. Quality in architecture does not – not to me anyway – mean inclusion in architectural guides or histories of architecture or getting my work into this or that publication. Quality architecture to me is when a building manages to move me”25

Architecture is not a prescriptive or descriptive entity, it cannot be quantified or measured, it is a feeling an emotion of experience. Something which when experienced can be identified, but is not always present. Architecture is not limited to built structures or even physical objects – an idea can be architecture as long as it possesses the aura of architecture.

What happened to architecture? Is there any longer ‘architecture’ in our architecture? Especially with the dwelling man has lost his link with nature and his surroundings. The dwelling is no longer an extension of the body but more commonly ‘boxes’ into which he is inserted, detract from his specific needs and requirements.


Peter Zumthor Atmospheres p11

What is Architecture?


What Happened to Architecture? There are examples where this is less the case, such as Falling Water (Kaufman House) by Frank Lloyd Wright, the house is sited on the rock where the Kaufman family used to picnic- they found the place, embraced the nature then built their dwelling around this.26 “As culture evolved, man divided time from nature. With leisure, nature became subject to choice and judgement. The house became disassociated from the earth’s activities, for the restlessness of man made the house geographically independent. The house became a foreign element set on the land without practical purpose. Its life no longer tied to survival and support for the community;…”27 Nature for man is now optional, something enjoyed for the purposes of leisure, or the aesthetic of a visual beauty through a window, hanging on the wall like a landscape watercolour. Heat, light and water are ‘piped’ to where they are needed; the hearth and the well are now objects of aesthetic ornament. The seasons, day and night have all been tamed by man, no longer having power over him or the ability to influence how he lives life.28 So what of ‘architecture’ now? Can we continue we continue with our present approach of environmental disassociation, detaching man from his link to his surroundings; has the definition of ‘architecture’ shifted, is architecture now something else?


Frank Lloyd Wright Per Olaf Fjeld, Op. Cit. p24 28 ibid 27

What Happened to Architecture?


What Happened to Architecture?

Bibliograph Fjeld. P. O, ‘Sverre Fehn on the thought of construction’ (New York; Rizzoli Publications, 1983) th

Fowler. H.W, ed Sykes J “Oxford English Dictionary” [7 edition] (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1984 [1911]) Fox. K, ‘Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour’ (London: odder and Stoughton, 2005) Heinz, T.A., ‘The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright’ (New Jersey: Chartwell Books inc. 2007) Le Corbusier, ‘The Marseilles block / translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury’ (London: Harvill Press, 1953.) Le Corbusier, ‘Towards a New Architecture’, (New York; Dover Publications, 1986) Magee. B, ‘The Story of Philosophy’ (London; Dorling Kindersley, 2001) Shepheard, P. `What is Architecture?’ [4


edition] , (Massachusetts; MIT Press, 1999 [1


edition 1994]) The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia. (Online computer systems inc; 1993) Zumthor. P, “Atmospheres’ (Basel; Birkhaüser, 2006)

What Happened to Architecture?



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